Posts Tagged ‘darwinism’

SERMON: “A Sense of Meaning” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 20th, 2013

While walking on the treadmill at the gym, I watched a morning news feel-good story about an American military neurosurgeon who was haunted by an Iraq War patient he had treated.  The soldier that landed on his operating table was “the most horribly wounded soldier” the surgeon had ever seen.  But they patched up his terrible head wound and shipped him off to Germany.  Years later, the doctor was ready to re-visit his war experience.  He Googled the name of the soldier he was sure had died of his wounds and, to his surprise, the man popped up in a T.V. interview, very much alive.

The news story then showed video from that interview of a man who looked as if someone had scooped out a third of his brain and replaced a portion of his formerly-round skull with a sunken flat plate.  But the soldier could walk and talk, despite having lost a chunk of his frontal lobe.

And though the soldier was “not up to another interview” (for this current report), there were still-pictures of him and his neurosurgeon meeting.  The doctor reported (after) that he had asked his former patient what I thought was a deeply insightful question: was he happy that he had survived?  The soldier answered that, yes, he was.

This was a powerful moment.  About as profound as can be imagined.  But, of course, these kinds of news stories aren’t really about the profound (or disturbing) aspects of these stories: they are meant to be inspirational, aspirational, “feel-good” tales of that type that allows you and I to easily borrow some added confidence (in our own resilience) from hearing of the experiences of someone who’s been through real shit.

But I don’t feel good when I watch a story like this.  I see the lingering, daily struggle (that is the long shadow of the original tragedy) that looms over the “happy ending” that we are all supposed to assent to — and move on from — having snatched up our bit of “borrowed courage”.  (I felt the same way about all of the cheering for the slightest progress of Representative Gabby Giffords after she was shot in the head).

As I watched the story of the “recovered” soldier this morning, I reflexively uttered “Goddamn war”, expressing a deep revulsion at the idea that sentient individuals had worked together to create the conditions of war under which a strong, physically able young man was suddenly and irrevocably stripped of a large chunk of his capacities.

But even as I said that, I realized that other humans were very likely watching this story and having equally strong emotional reactions that were going to be the complete opposite of mine.  Some might feel a sweeping sense of admiration for the soldier, or awe at the doctor’s skill, or anger at the bastards that set off the road-side bomb that wounded the soldier.  In short, each of us who react to a story react according to different sets of moral triggers.  As Jonathon Haidt describes so well in “The Righteous Mind” (reviewed this blog), we humans fall into one of several categories on that score (meaning that — when presented with a moral dilemma — though many of us will react in similar ways, we are not safe to assume that all humans will react in the same way we do).

Everywhere you look there is, well, our physical reality.

Everywhere you look there is, well, our physical reality.

Despite this natural variation in our moral response, in practice I think that we all pretty much assume that our moral centers are the ones that are properly calibrated, and so we are often surprised when the obvious wrong that outrages us don’t elicit the same outrage in others.  This is abundantly clear in politics and social values, where, as an example, an evangelical conservative might see abortion as the moral equivalent of institutionalized genocide, yet be mystified by a progressive who sees the denial of the right of a gay citizen to marry as the equivalent of denying an African American of his legal rights because of his race.

So it would seem that the thing that we all have in common is not the particular moral issue we react to, but the strength of the reactions we have to events that outrage (or inspire) us.

It is clear to me that we are “feeling” animals.  And I would take this further and suggest today that it these sorts of experiences — when our deep emotions are attached to experiences — that are, to my mind, the source of all that we might possibly define as “meaning”.

Each of us, if pressed, could probably write out a list of the things that make life “meaningful”.  I suspect that these would be the activities (or traits) that we feel the most strongly about.  We might put on that list “a sense of purpose”, or “love”, or “meaningful work” or “kindness”.  These are the kinds of things that make us feel good in a way that we see as different from the simple satisfying of a hunger for food or a lust for sex.  These are the kinds of things that give us a specific kind of feeling — that sense of well-being that comes from a regular experience of the “higher” emotions.

What do I mean when I argue that it is the welding of our “higher” emotions to experience that forms the basis for meaning in our lives?  I realize that we might be hesitant to grant this rather mechanical-sounding point, as one of the things that makes our “higher” emotions, well, “higher” is that we attribute to them a certain transcendent quality.  Part of the reason they have such an elevated influence on us is that they come upon us in ways that are most often rare and wondrous.  They are harder to generate than the simpler pleasures of eating our favorite snack or watching our favorite t.v. show.  Like everything else, their rarity makes them precious and highly valued.  And like everything else of value, it almost follows as axiomatic that we will try to manufacture these most desired feelings (the “feel good” story I relate above is a perfect example of this).

Now to a religious person, all of this may simply sound like me trying to drag the realm of the angels down to earth.  (That’s just silly, of course, because no actual angels will be harmed by this sermon).  But many do seriously believe that a materialistic view of life (meaning that there is nothing about our experience of life that happens outside of natural processes, whether understood or not) leads to a cheapening of human life.  I hardly think this is the case, but it’s worth taking a serious look at this important point.

The fear of a materialistic view is, I think, twofold: The first being that a loss of external (divine) validation will weaken the moral bonds that moderate bad human behavior.  The second fear is that our experience of the transcendent will simply cease (this fear being a reflection of just how much we value these experiences and feelings).  Both of these fears are rooted in the assumption that morality and transcendent experience are purely products of God, of which we are passive recipients and respondents: i.e. we are not the source.

Were this to be an accurate description of reality, these fears would, indeed, be reasonable and completely valid (for then it would be true that if God were to go away, then with Him would go our treasured morality and ecstatic experience! ) But here is the tricky part of this transition from what is, essentially, our habitual practice of dislocating portions of our consciousness from inside the brain to outside of our physical selves: if we can allow ourselves to entertain the possibility that our experience of existence is actually a process occurring within the confines of our body and brain, then this deep fear of this great loss becomes meaningless and moot.  If we can allow ourselves this shift — what I would call a returning of our dislocated self to it’s true location, what actually changes is more akin to moving some colored pins on a map than actually moving any actual nations or landmasses.  Nothing essential actually changes (or goes away).  We are simply thinking about our experiences differently.

To be honest, it might be worth saying here that even when I locate (or conceptualize) my self within my physical body, I still experience my thoughts and feelings in a sort of imagined space in that body — meaning that I’m not actually sensing where each synapse or nerve is functioning when I think or feel.  So it could be argued that I am quibbling over swapping one conceptually useful inaccuracy for another, more useful one!  So why even bother with it?

As I’ve asserted before, recognizing that you and I only get this one chance at being living, breathing human beings reveals, to my mind, a truer value of life.  There is no hiding our naked vulnerability in “heavenly rewards” or “the next life”.  (Yes, our DNA carries on in our children, and our component elemental parts will be “recycled” once we no longer require them in our living bodies, but we will most likely not go on living forever as the individuals we were in life reborn by God in newly-minted heavenly bodies).

I think that — when it comes to the conscious individual experience of existence — this one life is all we get.  And it reasonably follows that there is nothing intelligent “out there” to either rely on or worry about.  An unexpected result of this word-view is the fact that I now recoil at human tragedy like I never did when I was trying so hard to be a Christian.  (Some of that may be a function of age and experience, but my Darwinian world-view is surely a large part of the equation).

None of this diminishes the value that our emotions place upon the things that are meaningful to us.  To think that would be silly as well.  Sure, what you and I value means nothing to the rest of the vast, cold universe.  So what?  (I mean that: so what?).  That also means that the rest of the vast, cold universe is incapable of passing even the slightest judgement upon us for feeling our feelings as we do (for every loss there is also gain).  We are what we are.  And a great deal of what we are is our capacity to feel deeply about things that matter to us.

All living things want to keep on living.  But we are the only animals that want — no, need — to live meaningful lives as well.  It could be argued, I think, that it is a sense of meaning that fuels our capacity to want to continue living.  And the fact that this matters to us as much as it does is, in the end, all the justification we need.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “How God Makes Nature Cruel” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

A friend asked me a question — an interesting thought experiment: If God were to make a 30-second announcement to all of humanity at once, what would he (or she) say?

The future-predicting part of my brain had already prepared a response to what I thought my friend’s question was going to be (if God did such a thing, how would I — as an atheist — feel about it?  My answer: pissed).  So at first I wasn’t certain I would have a decent answer question he actually asked.  But then it came to me.

I thought that God would say to us all: “Every one of you evolved from earlier life forms that were created through completely natural processes.  So relax.  There are lots of other life forms out there in the universe, but you’ll never meet them.  Be nice to each other.”

Today I’m thinking about my two reactions, both to the anticipated question and the actual one.  I’ll talk about the “pissed” response first.

Despite what most believers might expect, I wasn’t angry that God existed.  As one who puts his confidence in evidence, were there to be actual evidence of the existence of God, I would naturally bow to the obvious.  (I’d want to be sure, however, that there was actual, testable evidence, and not merely a mass hallucination!).  No — I wouldn’t be angry that God actually existed: I would be angry at God for being such a bastard son of a bitch.

Why?  Because if God were to say what I suggested he say to his creation, he would be acknowledging that every shred of evidence that we’ve found on this planet was, in fact, correct (and that you religious fundamentalists could stop beating up on the poor scientists, thank you very much!).  That would mean that God was, in truth, a distant commentator (of a deistic sort) who perhaps touched off the big bang and let the rest just happen according to physical laws.

Or perhaps not even that, for the questions inevitably multiply: was God, then, created by those natural forces?  Did he design the natural forces themselves?  If so, could anything so created really be called a natural force?  Which brings us back to the uncomfortable fact that God had turned out to be, essentially, an evil trickster sort of god (with a lower-case “g”).

As soon as one inserts the actions of a supervisory intelligence into nature, you suddenly have to confront the question of intention and, hence, morality and ethics.  So, when you bring God to a nature fight, that is when nature becomes cruel, wasteful and just plain mean.  Without God, all you have are blind, mindless, unintentional natural forces that do the “picking and choosing” that are the process we call natural selection.  And natural selection operates without thought or intention, which means it is also without malice or cruelty.  Evolution, because (as a theory) it is essentially a description of the process by which species adapt into more or less successful creatures (through the non-random selection of random mutations — as Richard Dawkins might say it) it does not play favorites the way an individual with a mind would.

Okay.  so let’s look at the alternative view (the one that is, essentially, put forth by young earth creationists), that God planted the evidence of evolution (all those pesky fossils) and deep geologic time to test our faith.  In essence, he made sure that there was no direct evidence of his existence, and set humanity loose on a life-or-death scavenger hunt for clues that he cleverly decided to hide so deeply that no-one (or, at the least, only a chosen few) would ever find.  And that even those sparse clues would be so vague and ambiguous as to be really, really tough to have faith in, even for the most faithful.

That’s the kind of God I could be really, really pissed at.  That is the son-of-a-bitch God that would fit the model of the spoiled kid that thinks the servants in his rich parents household are his playthings and not equal human beings.

Am I being unfair to God?  No.   Not really.  And I find that I have accidentally come upon another fundamental problem with the whole idea of God, and it is a paradox.

We believe that God is good, and the source of all that is good (and, therefore, the creator of the universal standard of human morality).  We blame the Devil for all of the cruelty and evil in the world (the result of humanity’s famous fall from grace in the Garden of Eden).  And so we modern humans are left to struggle upon the earthly venue for the heavenly battle between these two unequal (and yet somehow “allowed” to be nearly equal in this “world”) forces.

The paradox is this:  it is the introduction of the idea of God itself that stains all of creation with the stamp of good or evil.  It makes a moral problem out of the parasite that hijacks the brain of its victims so that its hatching young can eat the poor victim from the inside out, or the bleating of the young gazelle as it is torn apart by hyenas, or the disfigurement of an innocent human infant from a genetic mutation that lead to a birth defect.

Because of God we humans are called upon to make declarations about the morality of essentially amoral, natural events.

We humans are the moral animals, and our morality is a byproduct of our social natures that are, themselves, an evolved trait that we share with many other primates and mammals (think of whales and dolphins).  We understand intention because we are intentional animals, with large brains that have several layers of function piled by evolution on top of our (more ancient) instinctive and reflexive brains.  We are able to critique our own behavior and, therefore, have a set of semi-flexible standards for that which is the behavior that we tolerate, welcome or condemn in others.

The problem is that we project our own natural intentionality into a universe that has no idea what we’re on about.  A universe, in fact, that has no idea at all.  A universe that is open and vast and completely empty of any sort of God we can imagine.

Or at least it better be, or that poor God is going to have some answering to do for every act of cruelty that will end up being charged to his (or her, or its) account.

And this is why seeing nature for what it is proves to be better than the religious/mystical view that many of us grew up with.  It turns out that it is God, in fact, that makes nature cruel and capricious.  Evolution lets the world be what it is: natural.  Which, in turn, frees up a good part of the contents of our brain case to deal with the very real ins and outs of our social interactions with our fellow animals, where intention and morality actually do exist.

Nature is not cruel.  It cannot be: it has no mind or heart with which to form any intention at all, whether it be good or evil.  Only we higher life forms, and the Gods like us that we imagine, can do that.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Joys of Ambiguity and the Consolations of Science” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, April 17th, 2011

After the initial “scientific revolution” blitzkrieg against the ramparts of religion (where, it should be noted, religion did not fare so well), there have been attempts (by some on both sides of that battle) to raise a flag of truce.  The terms of this proposed cease-fire are drawn along the lines of the idea of non-overlapping magisterium, wherein Religion would accept the truths of science, cede the lost territory of using the Bible to explain the origins of species and the formation of the earth (as well as the causes of diseases and natural disasters) and Science would leave alone questions having to do with the existence of God and the meaning of life, as well as the role of personal confessor and consoler of the human soul.

This has never been an easy truce, nor one to which all signatories have remained within the letter (or the spirit) of the unwritten compromise.

For mainstream religion adapted to the new intellectual landscape by picking bits from the discoveries of science to spice up its sermons and lend them an air of contemporary credibility, while on the fringes the more fundamentalist believers in the Biblical account of creation simply added the word “science” to their “discipline” (while conveniently leaving out much of any true “scientific method” from their “proofs”) and dug in their heels, planting their flag proudly on Mount Irrational.  And on the Science side, many have not restrained themselves from the almost inevitable conclusion that since the evolution of life and the formation of the universe can now be explained within purely natural (if mind-boggling) means (and therefore requires the addition of no supernatural means for its existence) that there is, then, no greater being or intelligence at all.  In sum: since there is no scientific need for god, there is no god.

Obviously I fall into this latter extreme naturalist/atheist camp.

And yet even among those who have a passable understanding of what evolution tells us about our own existence, there remains a majority (if recent surveys are to believed) that nonetheless hold to a belief in God (in some form).

I consider a belief in an actual god an irrational belief, and I say that with some confidence.  However, I am also aware of another reality that has to temper any such pronouncement.  For though I consider a belief in an active, intervening and personal God to be an idea that can only exist in an ignorance of the actual evidence of biology, that “evidence of biology” (at least in terms of what we are now coming to understand of the way our evolved mammalian brains operate) suggests that our propensity toward magical thinking is as natural to our consciousness as is our capacity for empathy or aggression: in short God (both as an idea and as a perceived “presence”) is a natural by-product of consciousness.

And if God is, then, natural, can I really have a “problem” with it?  Sure, I can.  But I don’t feel like i can take it so far as to ridicule any and everyone who believes.  (Though, to be honest, there is no escaping the implied “ridicule” in my pronouncing their beliefs to be ridiculous).

Part of the reason I can’t (or won’t) actually attack a person’s beliefs is the same reason that most people would not leap into unrestrained rapine violence were they to suddenly realize there was no Great Father in the Sky watching their behavior and holding eternal punishment over their heads:  That reason being that I am also a deeply (profoundly) social animal, living among similarly social animals of my own kind, and I strongly desire to continue living among my kind in freedom and security.  (Going on a lawless rampage would quickly cost me my social standing, my career and my liberty — and all of that long before god got is eternal paws on me!)

What if I'd known all of this at 15?

Screw God, I say: the real punishment of misbehaving is (and has always been) the loss of the approbation of my fellow humans.  They have the real power to punish (forgetting, for now, the socio- and psychopathic among us that are genetically immune to such scorn from their fellow sentient beings).

Which brings me back around to an insoluble conundrum: the more science I read; the more corners of my ignorance into which science is able to cast some light, the less room there is for an actual god to hide.  And yet, the more science I read, the better I understand that the range of human personalities also has a genetic and biochemical basis, meaning that there will always be a portion of the population given to a liberal mind or a conservative mind (the conservative minded being the one that cannot comfortably function with a large does of ambiguity and that will, therefore, rely on its natural capacity for magical thinking to find evidence in a purely “natural” life for the divine).  Such as these will never join in fellowship with those of us who find a certain pleasure in the contemplation of the complexities of life that science reveals to us.

And this brings us to where science is now, I think: once more moving the fence posts that mark the ever-shrinking patch of land that the church occupies.  For the kind of knowledge that science can now supply is the kind of knowledge that no longer only informs (and tickles the more “open” mind), it also consoles.  And consolation has been one of the more popular menu-items at the religious buffet for many millennia.

As a personal example, the last two books I have read about brain science have helped me to begin a sort of mental “remediation”, wherein, like an asbestos removal team, I can begin uncovering and removing the last toxic vestiges of magical thinking that I had been culturally inclined to apply to the way my brain works.  In short, I can now recognize the mechanics of how my particular brain has stored information over the years, flavoring each memory with a charge of emotion (positive or negative) based on my personality (read: genes).

This may not sound like much, but in fact it frees me from an enormous burden, a burden that, at various times in my life, has included trying to figure out what the God of the Universe was trying to tell me through each experience, or what my Higher Power was “leading” me to (through this upset or that), or what possible cosmic “meaning” an event might be concealing.

Wow.  That’s a lot of BIG CONCERN for a mammalian brain to handle, especially when it turns out THERE IS NO SUCH THING be be concerned with!

In this sense, the ability to “see the world as it really is” has tremendous powers of consolation, as well as incredible practical utility.  I can now observe the way my brain operates without making that operation more (or less) than it actually is.  Further, it has given me tools to deal with the charged memories already stored in my brain during my more magically-inclined decades (sigh).

In short, I find that my increasing knowledge of science, and the recent reading of two books (that are basically about how mouse brains work) have given me more emotional comfort and useful tools than my 25 years of religious belief and years of therapy.  It almost feels as if the knowledge I’ve gained in the last couple of months — if given to the 15 year-old Bob — could have saved me a lot of trouble.

Oh, and did I mention the joy that such discoveries bring to a mind like mine?  Tremendous!

Sound a bit like a religious “testimony”?  Yeah, only it’s not.  It is a testimony to what lies beyond magical thinking: the joys of ambiguity and the consolations of science.

t.n.s.r. bob